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Yet Another Homeowner Led Astray By Giant ISP; Responds with Muni Fiber Initiative

Last month, we highlighted the story of Seth, a Washington state homeowner forced to put his home up for sale due to a perfect storm of sloppy customer service, corporate bureaucracy, and terrible Internet policy. Now meet Dave Mortimer from Michigan.

Dave in another person in a similar situation, reports Ars Technica. In 2013 incumbent AT&T told Dave three separate times that the house he had his eye on in rural Lowell had U-verse fiber network capabilities. Their website verified what customer service represenatives told him. Dave is an IT professional and wanted the opportunity to work from home. He must be on call while not in the office and so requires a fast residential Internet connection. 

After buying the home and moving in, AT&T backpedaled. Actually his best option was DSL offering 768 Kbps. Oops!

Working from home was a struggle. After Dave complained to AT&T, the FCC, the FTC, and the state Public Service Commission, the provider eventually updated their website but that didn't help Dave. He limped along but seldom worked from home as he had planned to do from the start. His office is 30 minutes away.

Finally, AT&T billed him for a phone line he never requested leading to an auto-payment error and a shut-off of his Internet service. That was enough for Dave. He approached a local wireless provider Vergenness Broadband and, working with the installer, attached the receiver to a tree some distance from his house and buried the extra long cable in cracks in his driveway to his house. Dave now pays $60 per month and gets the 3 Mbps download / 1 Mbps upload he was promised.

Dave is no where near the 45 Mbps he had hoped to obtain from the phantom U-verse, but he has this to say about his local provider:

“This is a night and day difference since switching from AT&T," he said. "Everything that AT&T did wrong, this small local company is doing right.”

Dave was fortunate to have a local company able to bring him service, even though it is not broadband as defined by the FCC. Nevertheless, he considers this a temporary fix and the best he can get for the time being.

This small company lured away Dave from AT&T but the Telecom Death Star is probably not worried about a massive customer exodus in Lowell. The Lowell Ledger recently reported on an April City Council meeting where Dave discussed his problems with AT&T and hte lack of broadband competition in Lowell:

Ryan Peel, owner of Vergennes Broadband LLC, said that his company had no plans to offer Internet service within Lowell city limits.

“We go head-to-head with Comcast and AT&T and it is very difficult to compete, basically because their prices are so low,” Peel said. “We basically don't have a presence in the city of Lowell because of that..."

That leaves few options for rural dwellers. Peel continues:

"...They cover just about everybody that's here. The outlying townships, that's a completely different story. That's part of my vision, has been to cover the more rural areas and not focus so much on town, just because of the options that already exist.”

Which leaves few options for town dwellers. Two options - DSL or cable with no choice of providers - verges on being no options at all.

AT&T has no one to blame but themselves as Dave's idea, the Lowell Fiber Initiative, takes off. He has presented his idea to the City Council and assembled a collection of resources to educate others in the community. Lowell already has its own electric utility, much like Michigan's Sebewaing, that fired up its own gigabit FTTH network late last year.

Michigan is one of the 19 states with restrictions on the books but, in light of the FCC's February ruling striking down restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina, the future for places like Lowell may be brighter. As long as AT&T continues to offer business as usual, more Daves will continue to build movements like the Lowell Fiber Initiative.

Sebewaing Bringing Better Connectivity to Residents, Businesses Via Fiber in Michigan

If you live in Sebewaing, you can now purchase FTTH connectivity from Sebewaing Light and Water (SLW) via their municipal network. Earlier this week, we discussed the network with Sebewaing Light and Water Superindendent Melanie McCoy.

The first village in Michigan to offer gigabit service issued its RFP in summer 2013. Like many other small communities, the 1,700 inhabitants in Sebewaing were limited to dial-up. T1 service (1.5 Mbps)  was available to businesses but lines cost from $1,000 - $1,500.

Commercial connectivity via the new infrastructure now begins at $75 for symmetrical 50 Mbps service. SLW also offers symmetrical 100 Mbps for $130 and advertises customized packages if those options are not adequate. SLW will also waive the $125 installation fee if a business signs up before the end of the year.

Residents also receive free standard installation if they sign up before the end of 2014. They can pay as little as $35 per month for symmetrical 30 Mbps service, $55 per month for 50 Mbps symmetrical, or $105 per month for 100 Mbps symmetrical service. 1 Gbps/100 Mbps service costs $160 per month.

SLW has already signed up a commercial gig customer. The Bay Shore Methodist Camp & Family Ministries holds events that often cater to hundreds of children and adults. They need a high capacity connection for Wi-Fi to serve a large number of devices.

Sebewaing's original plan was to build an open access network but after careful consideration and legal analysis, it decided to provide retail services. SLW purchases bandwidth only from Air Advantage, a wireless provider specializing in the "thumb" of Michigan. The utility also offers voice services via the network.

According to a September Tuscola County Advertiser article, customers were signing up for service as SLW was finishing deployment. We checked in with Melanie McCoy, SLW Superintendent, who told us 328 people have added their names to a sign-up list. At this writing, they have connected 130 premises, mostly residents. SLW has not invested in marketing but when installers are out, residents see them and immediately call the utility to request service.

According to McCoy, unanticipated high demand has been one of SLW's biggest challenges. They underestimated the amount of time it would take to perform each installation and a few customers have grown impatient. Nevertheless, they have received glowing reviews from customers who are connected.

Speed is certainly an important factor in attracting customers so quickly, but McCoy told the Advertiser that the people of the community also value affordability and accountability:

McCoy said she’s pleased that Sebewaing residents and businesses will have access to gigabit speed, and they’ll have better prices and better service because of the “local” factor. Customers won’t have to deal with a large urban conglomerate for their service. 

Michigan's First Gigabit Village - Community Broadband Bits Episode 126

The small village of Sebewaing has become the first gigabit village in the state of Michigan. Superintendent of Sebewaing Light and Water utility Melanie McCoy joins us to discuss the project on episode 126 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

With approximately 1,800 people, Sebewaing has cracked the code for a small local government to deliver gigabit services to the community. In the show, we discuss previous telecommunications investments by the village and how they financed the gigabit fiber deployment.

We also discuss how Michigan law, designed to discourage municipal networks, delayed the project and increased the costs as well as the annoyance to many residents who long ago became impatient with how long it took to begin turning on the Internet service.

Read our full coverage of Sebewaing here.

Read the transcript from our conversation here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 14 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama."

Network Progressing in "Sugartown" Michigan

Last summer we reported on Sebewaing, the community of 1,700 in the tip of the "thumb" in Michigan. At the time, Sebewaing Light and Water (SLW) was exploring the possibilities of deploying its own FTTH network. Like other small communities, Sebewaing could not get the service it needed from large corporate providers. We recently caught up with SLW's Superintendent, Melanie McCoy, to get an update.

The community released its RFP [PDF] and received responses from two bidders. McCoy tells us that in Michigan, such a low response rate allows the municipality to deploy its own network, so SLW decided to proceed.

The construction bid for the fiber backbone went to Earthcom, located in Lansing. Air Advantage successfully bid to supply bandwidth and the headend. Calix will provide the customer premise equipment that will offer data and voice services.

Sebewaing's network is 90% aerial and the final estimate is $1-2 million. The network will provide 1 gig capacity with the potential to expand to 10 gigs. Because the utility has its own poles and in-house expertise to handle labor, SLW is able to perform make-ready work themselves, lowering the final cost of the deployment. SLW will use an interdepartmental loan from its electric, water, and wireless utilities to fund the investment. According to McCoy, the RFP responses were both about $1 million higher than the final estimate.

In 2003, SLW began providing wireless Internet access to residents in Sebewaing so staff has experience as a broadband utility. They also installed a small fiber loop in the downtown area to serve businesses and municipal facilities. The old fiber loop will be retired because it has fewer strands and has been maxed out for some time.

The new fiber will replace connections between fifteen public facilities, including wells, public safety, and administration buildings. Each facility currently pays only $15-25 per month to be connected, saving thousands in yearly fees for leased lines from incumbents. Rates will not change, even though the new network will offer higher capacity.

Bandwidth is currently purchased as part of a consortium that includes the school district. The district purchases bandwidth through a link to the Merit Network, the Michigan statewide fiber network that reaches educational and research facilities.

When SLW finishes the installation, it will work primarily with Air Advantage, a wireless and fiber provider specializing in connecting rural customers in the area. SLW will maintain the connection to the Merit Network for redundancy.

Pricing for connections is still being determined, but SLW anticipates more speed for less. According to McCoy, SLW sees this venture as another way to serve the public. The network will provide an essential service and will also boost economic development. Sebewaing, nicknamed "Sugartown," has a thriving sugar beet industry but when the auto industry took a downturn, the local economy suffered. To date, no other industry has stepped in to fill the gap.

Local establishments are ready to make a switch. Businesses and residents, frustrated with poor service from incumbents AT&T and Comcast, are already asking to be connected. McCoy also notes that the network is expected to offer telecommuting opportunities for a number of people. For example, an astronomer from the University of Michigan, located about 2 hours south, anticipates a possible move to the area. The rural night sky is ideal for his work but he needs a high capacity connection to share data with colleagues.

The Huron Daily Tribune spoke with McCoy in January, who hinted at more developments in Michigan:

Because of the many benefits involved in a FTTH project, other municipalities around the Thumb and in other areas are watching what Sebewaing is doing, McCoy said. The town could very well become the model for FTTH systems for rural areas all over the state, and beyond.

Louisiana and Michigan Towns Pass Resolutions to Support Municipal Network Authority

Two more communities have gone on the record as supporting local authority for telecommunications infrastructure investment. Communities in Vidalia and Sebewaing passed resolutions supporting the FCC's efforts to use its authority to discourage, prevent, and remove state barriers.

Vidalia, on the west side of the Mississippi in Louisiana, recently began offering free Wi-Fi in its new sports complex and along its riverfront. According to Mayor Hyram Copeland, the lack of free public access left local leaders feeling behind the times. From a Natchez Democrat article in February:

“I was embarrassed to say, ‘No,’ but now I can say we do,” Copeland said. “But the end result of all this is that we will have moved this community forward.”

Vidalia seeks funding for a fiber network. Apparently, they are ready with a design and have the technical expertise in-house, but lack of funds have held up the project.

Vidalia's Resolution is almost identical to those in Ammon, Moultrie, Westminster, and Chanute.

Vidalia Seal

We reported on Sebewaing, located in Michigan's "thumb," last summer. The community runs its own electric utility and, due to lack of interest from incumbents, decided a FTTH network was a project they needed to pursue. According Melanie McCoy, from Sebewaing Light and Water, the project is proceeding as planned.

Sebewaing's Resolution uses the same language to address the points we see in Resolutions from the other communities: the need for better access, the importance of broadband infrastructure to local economies, and the important role of local government in the decision making process. Each community has expressed its support of the FCC's decision to exercise its authority under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Merit Collaborates With OARnet and Local Community in Hillsdale, Michigan

A recent press release from the Merit educational and research network in Michigan announces a new connection to its Ohio sister, OARnet. Member entities and local communities now enjoy better redundancy, expanded reach, and better services. Local communities continue to benefit from the presence of the middle mile infrastructure.

The network helps local Hillsdale College to cut connectivity costs; the Merit announcement quotes Hillsdale College leadership:

"Hillsdale College has been a Merit member since 1992," stated David Zenz, executive director of information technology services for Hillsdale College, "and it was always a dream to figure out some way to eliminate expensive data circuit costs to free up funds to purchase more bandwidth. In 2008 The City of Hillsdale, the Hillsdale Intermediate School District, Hillsdale College, and Merit figured out how to do just that."

Through a long term collaborative effort, Merit, the City of Hillsdale, Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities (BPU), Hillsdale College, and Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD) came together to establish the Hillsdale Community Network. Each entity now benefits from lowered connectivity costs, better infrastructure, and improved opportunities. 

A 2009 story from Merit, describes the situation at ISD:

In 2006, Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD) found that it was in desperate need of increasing its network bandwidth to meet the growing demands of its users. The District had 62 miles of fiber optic cabling strung around the county, but was looking for ways to increase its available bandwidth in Hillsdale without increasing its costs. This time, a partnership between the two organizations [ISD and Hillsdale College] and others in the area began to make sense. 

According to the article, Merit managed the project from start to finish. The City has cut costs and improved economic opportunity. Also from the article:

"We saw a cost reduction for the city," according to Eric Macy, contractor for the City of Hillsdale and Nonik. "We knew that we needed infrastructure for the future. We could have done a local network on our own, but we wanted to collaborate with others. If we had to do it all ourselves, it would have taken a lot longer to pull off." 

"We want to bill the city as a progressive place for economic development. As part of this project, we were able to provide some economic development." 

The expansion to bring OARnet and Merit together is part of the REACH-3MC project, funded by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants. We recently reported on Merit's completed segment expansion to rural Alpena, also part of the project.

Merit Network Completes Another Segment in Rural Michigan

Last fall we shared news about the Merit fiber optic network moving across Michigan. An October 24th press release from Merit announced that engineers recently completed another 3,000 foot segment. The expansion created a 10 Gbps connection between Alpena and Powers, Michigan. Powers is a rural community of less than 400; approximately 10,000 people live in Alpena.

The network began in 1966 as a way to connect state and research facilities. Since then, it has evolved to connect an extensive list of schools, libraries, and government facilities. 

From the press release:

"We've built fiber-optic infrastructure all the way to Superior, Wisconsin," said Michael Milliken, director of network engineering at Merit Network. "In Michigan, we have built and lit most of the REACH-3MC network in the Upper Peninsula, with routes going to Ironwood, Menominee and Houghton. Just the connection between Houghton, Hancock, and Calumet remains to be completed in Michigan. We also need to complete the DWDM network paths into Wisconsin and Minnesota." 

The REACH-3MC (Rural, Education, Anchor, Community and Heath care – Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative) project is funded by two American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants. The project will expand the original Merit network by an additional 2,287 miles. The project overview PDF provides a detailed map and information on Merit members.

Small Michigan Town Issues RFP for FTTH Network

The community of Sebewaing, located in the "thumb" of Michigan is moving closer to its own FTTH network, which will be the first new municipal FTTH project in the state.

Because of a state law impinging on local authority in Michigan, local governments must first issue an RFP and can build a telecommunications network themselves if they receive fewer than three qualified bids. If the community builds the network themselves, it probably must adhere to the RFP as if it were a private entity. This approach ignores the fact that a community operates a network with different incentives than a private company, so the two are not interchangeable. 

We wanted to know more about this effort, so we contacted Melanie McCoy, Superintendent of the municipal utility Sebewaing Light and Water. We discovered that the town of 1,700 residents, known for its beet farming, has several factors going for it. 

Communities with their own utilities already in place have personnel, equipment, and expertise which saves money and time. And because they already own the utility poles, they are often able to get started quickly rather than waiting for other firms to do "make-ready," which can take months as wires are shifted on poles. Sebewaing has a municipal fiber loop currently in place - another plus. McCoy tells us the fiber was installed in 2001 and 2002 at a cost of about $50,000.

Private Internet choices were limited to dial-up for about $20 per month or a T1 connection for around $1,000 to $1,500 per month. At the time, Sebewaing Light and Water shared a T1 connection with local businesses.

Residents, business and government needed better connectivity and community leaders also realized the need to boost economic development. Sebewaing Light and Water leadership also wanted to increase efficiency with a SCADA system and considered a telecommunications utility a good investment. And looking toward the future, they knew installation of the fiber would position them favorabley for future investment. 

Sebewaing Map

Changes in community leadership, tight budgets, and legislative changes interrupted plans to connect the fiber to homes in Sebewaing. The community did the most they could with what they had, however, and connected city facilities to the fiber loop.

Within a couple years, local business owners who could not get the speeds they needed from incumbent cable and DSL providers, approached Sebewaing Light and Water asking to be connected to high-speed Internet.

In 2011, Sebewaing commissioned a feasibility study from Pulse Broadband based on the concept of serving 1,000 households with an open access model. The RFP calls for 1 gig capacity symmetrical service. McCoy estimates the network to be about 18 miles of fiber on the mostly aerial network in the service area. The project estimate is around $1 million and the city council plans to use funds from the city capital improvement fund.

McCoy notes that suppliers, consultants, and bandwidth suppliers have already approached the city with inquiries. Closing for the RFP [PDF available online] is late June, so look for updates later this summer.

City and School District Team Up for Fiber in Royal Oak, Michigan

The City of Royal Oak, Michigan, a Detroit suburb and home to 57,000 residents, just announced it will be partnering with the school district to build a fiber optic network. According to the Royal Oak Patch, the cost is estimated at $400,000 and will link together eight city facilities and nine school buildings. According to the article:

“We are spending money now to save money long term,” said Manager of Information Systems Scott Newman.  “The new network will be much quicker, more reliable, have increased capacity, and cost the City less to operate.”

The cost of the project is being split between the City and the School District.  The School District will own and operate the network, and the City will have dedicated fiber for its share of the network’s capacity.  Construction is scheduled to begin this summer, and is planned to be completed this fall.

Update: We contacted Shawn Lewis-Larkin, Superintendent at Royal Oak Schools, for more detail on the project. He replied via email:

We obtained a price from a vendor for meeting the needs we have without constructing our own fiber network.  For 60 months the cost was going to be $775,656

vs.

Our 5 Year Cost to build and operate our cooperative network with the City will be $205,192.

Savings for Royal Oak Schools:  $570,463 Over 60 Months or yearly savings of $114,092

We are still amazed when public schools report such incredible savings, even though we encounter these savings on a regular basis.

Extensive Fiber Route Snaking Its Way Across Michigan

The nonprofit Merit Network, Inc., of Michigan, started in 1966 as a way to provide networking help to the state's research and educational facilities across the state. Over the years, the organization has kept up with the times and is now spearheading the Rural, Education, Anchor, Community and Healthcare - Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative (REACH-3MC II) project.

The project will bring connectivity to community anchor institutions and underserved rural communities in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The exentive fiber project is funded with two Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP) grants totaling $103.2 million. When completed, Upper and Lower Michigan will house an additional 2,287 miles of fiber.

Matt Roush recently reported on the project, which is well underway in Monroe County in the southern part of the state. Roush brought news about installation of telecommunications huts, an early step in expanding the network into northern Michigican. From the article:

REACH-3MC will connect 105 community anchor institutions as the network is built and will pass 900 more over time. Led by Merit Network, REACH-3MC includes sub-recipients from the private sector to make broadband readily available to households and businesses that lack adequate service options in the 52 counties that make up the project service area.

For more details on the project, including a map of the proposed routes, follow this link to a PDF of the project overview.